Thursday, May 15, 2014

Even the Losers: Arkansas

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. In our twelfth installment, we an examine our first SEC team, Arkansas.

2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8)

While the 2013 season was among the worst in recent Arkansas history, the Razorbacks opened the year with perhaps their best performance in beating a bowl bound Louisiana-Lafayette squad by 20 points. They followed that up with a closer than expected win over IAA Samford (but no son) and won their final game of the season the following week against a Southern Miss team in the throes of a 23-game losing streak. In their final non-conference game, Arkansas raced out to a 17-point third quarter lead, but Rutgers scored the games final 21 points to eke out a win. Once conference play began, the results were mostly grisly. South Carolina and Alabama scored 52 points on the Hogs in consecutive weeks, and through their first six league games, Arkansas had been outscored by 157 points. However, the Hogs didn't quit on first year coach Bret Bielema, losing first to Mississippi State in overtime and then squandering a late lead to LSU to finish without a conference win for the first time since 1942!

What Did the Razorbacks Do Well?
Run the ball. Obviously, when you finish without a conference win, there is usually not a whole lot you do well. However, Arkansas was legitimately strong running the football. The Hogs nearly produced two 1000-yard rushers, and as a team averaged a healthy 5.28 yards per carry (tied for 17th nationally). Those rushing numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Arkansas had no semblance of a passing attack.  As a team, Arkansas averaged under six yards per throw and completed fewer than 50% of their passes (118th in the nation).

What Didn't the Razorbacks Do Well?
Everything else. I've already touched on their putrid quarterback play (the worst among major conference teams outside of Kansas), but the Hogs also boasted the SEC's worst defense in terms of yards per play allowed. Conference foes very nearly rang up seven yards per play against the Hogs 'resistance' (6.86). Arkansas also fared poorly in the turnover department, giving the ball away a league high 19 times in conference play.

The Razorbacks Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Arkansas' performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Arkansas played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Razorbacks averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Razorbacks allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

Before his famous motorcycle accident, Bobby Petrino had enjoyed solid success at Arkansas. His defenses over his final two seasons were nothing to write home about, but the offensive attacks keyed by future NFL draft picks Ryan Mallett, Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Knile Davis, and Tyler Wilson ran amok over the SEC. After Petrino lost his gig thanks to his indiscretions, noted maniac John L Smith took over. Even with Tyler Wilson still under center, the offense declined and the defense went from bad to worse. The Razorbacks stole a successful Big 10 coach after their disappointing season and were prepared to return to their competitive ways. Not only did the defense continue to decline, finishing as arguably the worst in the SEC, the offense also faded. Now the Razorbacks enter 2014 having won just a pair of conference games over the previous two seasons.

The 2014 Schedule:
Playing in the SEC West, its a given Arkansas will have a difficult slate in 2014. Aside from their conference dates, the Razorbacks also have a few tests outside the SEC. Arkansas plays the requisite IAA opponent in Nicholls State and a low-level mid-major in UAB, but they also face a strong mid-major (Northern Illinois) and travel to play a major conference team (Texas Tech). The Red Raiders are hardly an upper-crust Big 12 team, but Arkansas will likely be an underdog, particularly on the road. Arkansas should be expected to win their trio of home games, but an upset by Northern Illinois would not be the greatest shock in the world. A reasonable Arkansas fan should be happy with a 3-1 mark in non-conference action. That means the Hogs would need to scrounge up a trio of league wins to get to bowl eligibility. In SEC play, the Hogs host Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss. The Hogs could be underdogs in all four games, but a win in one or two is certainly a possibility. Optimistically, if Arkansas wins a pair, they would need to grab one conference road win to get to bowl eligibility. Their road conference slate includes trips to Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Texas A&M. Winning at Auburn would be a huge reach, but Mississippi State, Missouri, or Texas A&M would only qualify as a minor upset. While three conference wins is not inconceivable, Arkansas may in fact find themselves underdogs in all eight conference games!

Reason for Optimism:
Bret Bielema's track record. We'll see in a moment why his track record may not mean as much you think. Regardless, there is no denying the success Bielema had at Wisconsin. Over seven seasons, his teams went 68-24 overall, finished the season ranked in the AP Poll five times, and played in three consecutive Rose Bowls to close his tenure. Prior to Wisconsin's run, the last Big 10 team to appear in three consecutive Rose Bowls were fellow mustelidae, the Michigan Wolverines from 1976 through 1978.

Final Prognosis:
Full disclosure, the idea for what I am about to write came from an excellent piece by Matt Hinton on why recruiting rankings matter. During his time at Wisconsin, Brett Bielema went a collective 37-19 against Big 10 opponents (not including the Badger's pair of wins in the Big 10 Championship Game). But who did his Badger teams beat in those 37 victories? The answer is that more than half of those wins came against the trinity of Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue. Against those three teams, Bielema's Badgers were 19-0. Against the rest of the Big 10, his teams were 18-19. The table below lists Wisconsin's record against each Big 10 team under Bielema.
There is something to be said for beating the teams you are supposed to beat, and Bielema's teams did just that, finishing 31-8 against Big 10 teams they were favored against. However, in the SEC, particularly, the SEC West, there are no Indianas, Minnesotas, or Purdues. A wise man once said, 'If you can't spot the fish at the table, you are the fish'. Fish is poker parlance for the weak player(s) that keeps everyone else in the black. Competing for conference wins against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M may mean Arkansas is the fish for the foreseeable future.

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